Dmitri Medvedev did an abrupt about face last week on recent Russian claims that an a new era was emerging on improved ties with the Baltic states. Referring to annual reunions of Second World War veterans in Estonia who fought against the Red Army as “mass gatherings of Nazis” Medvedev stated that this was proof of the country’s “basic political immaturity”.
“When those powers (including Georgia and Ukraine) dance on the bones of those who defended their countries (Soviet forces) then we understand how we form our relations with them and we line up our international priorities accordingly.”
This seemed not to be an isolated outburst. Some days before, in a lenghty interview with the Baltic News Service, Anvar Azimov, Russia’s ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, presented basically the same viewpoint, focussing on Estonia and Latvia. He also referred to a likely worsening of bilateral relations.
Some state that it was Medvedev’s regular political bow to Russia’s ultra-nationalists and Stalinists. Even though Medvedev has occasionally condemned the crimes of Stalin, his pandering to their primitive instincts is a common trait of Russian political culture.
Medvedev knows what stirs the emotions of a substantial part of the population.
Even though political leaders and public figures have been promoting a “destalinization” campaign, a recent sociological study has shown that sympathy for Stalin has actually increased in the past years.
The Russian public opinion research centre, VTsIOM, asked respondents to give an appraisal of Stalin’s role in Russian history. The results surprised even the most died-in-the-wool communists. When in 2007 some 15% of Russians thought that Stalin did “more good” (than bad), then now that segment of the population has grown to 26%. The proportion of the country which believes Stalin’s reign of terror was an unacceptable price for the USSR’s rapid growth as a military and industrial power has dallen to 24% - down 9%.
Nearly have of the participants in the poll were convinced that the exposure and analysis of past mistakes diverts the country from dealing with the really crucial issues. Forty five percent claim that destalinization is harmful since it supresses freedom of speech, (??? – ed) distorts the understanding of history and will make history one-sided. Only 26% are convinced that Russia can’t move forward and develop successfully without acknowedging and dealing with its past.
The Kremlin has put out mixed signals. The Memorial rights group sensing a possibility for sincere reform, made, amongst others, a proposal that anyone denying or justifying Stalin era crimes be barred from public office. Their offices were threatened with arsen.
In actuality most movement during the last decade has not been towards destalinization. One of Vladimir Putin’s first steps as Russian president in 2000 was to restore the Stalin-era national anthem. He also later supported the the publication of school textbooks justifying Stalin’s repressions as a necessary step and calling himn a great leader.
A substantive rapprocehment with the Baltic states surely can only follow a real attempt at understanding that the harm Stalin did to his own countrymen overshadows any progress he made in advancing Russia into an industrialized world power. It must also include an undersatnding that the first repressive Soviet occupation of 1940-1941, which destroyed the Estonian army, made it inevitable for young men to accept a foreign uniform in defending against a second Soviet occupation. There was no other choice.
Medvedev throws cold water on better relations with Baltic states